Luce review – boy vs teacher in a thrilling take on race and privilege

Luce is a Rubix Cube of a film, twisting into more puzzling outcomes with each turn. You might be able to get it all to click neatly into place, but you probably won’t. The captivating Kelvin Harrison Jr. plays the titular Luce, a young boy adopted out of war-torn Eritrea at the age of 10 by parents Amy and Peter Edgar (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth). He is the miracle child who has come from unimaginably different circumstances to defy all those around him to be at the top of the school ladder, destined for the loftiest of successes. This is where we meet Luce, as he enjoys the comfort of his ‘box’, admired by the giddy folks around. The film toys with what it means to be ‘boxed in’ by expectations, stereotypes and social standing  but gleefully tips over the boxes to see where we run. 

GEM Entertainment

Harrison Jr. is one of the stand-out faces in 2019, doubling this up with Waves in a year of eye-catching turns he brings unnerving charisma to the central role. He is unsettling in both his defiance of expectations and conformity to the powers that be. Luce challenges the idea of labels, most centrally with what it means to be a black person excelling at the elite end of white society. History teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer) is the lone sceptic of Luce’s charms. Showing dutiful concern over his provocative approach to an assignment for her class – of which he dawns the guise of philosopher Frantz Fanon, whose writings pointed towards violence as a necessity in overturning the effects of colonisation – she raids his locker to discover a concealed stash of fireworks furthering her apprehension of the school’s darling-boy. This is where our puzzle begins. 

Luce and Harriet are worthy opponents in the battle of pupil vs teacher, each with their own heights to fall from, but it is the blurring of their successes and privilege that keep the curiosity ticking along. Each character fighting to find balance in not letting their past define them whilst allowing it to set them apart. Octavia Spencer is also having quite the year, between this and Ma, getting to play darker shades than she has been granted previously. Her skull-boring stare sets up Harriet as a woman not to cross. This teacher exists in many schools, so there is great fun in getting to see her take on the mis-steppers around her whilst opening the doors to the person within.

GEM Entertainment

Director Julius Onah is the skillful hand guiding us further into the murkiness of the story, establishing himself as a filmmaker to look out for (despite a previous misstep in directing the scathingly dismissed The Cloverfield Paradox). Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury further layer in the tension with a throbbing score akin to their terrific previous work on Ex Machina. Although still harnessing the intimate energy of the theatre, it is the solid work of those involved that lift the film away from its original life as a play. Luce is a film to be chewed over and set alight in those moments of (hopefully) healthy debate whilst filing out of the cinema. There are undoubtably moments within Luce where the film falls prey to its Thriller contrivances, but ultimately there is greater success in the questions it provokes. A film like Luce lives on within these questions, in those we feel comfortable answering but most interestingly in ones we cannot.

Luce is in cinemas now.